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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Metaphorical Horror

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Although most of us have a healthy respect for significant incidents, we may dismiss what we see as trifles too quickly. The great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes didn't make such a mistake. Indeed, as he reminded his friend and colleague, Dr. John Watson, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”

Holmes even gives Watson an example of the importance of so-called trifles: “I dare call nothing trivial when I reflect that some of my most classic cases have had the least promising commencement. You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth [to] which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.”

Unfortunately, we know no other details of the adventure to which Holmes refers, for it was not one about which he or Watson wrote. Nevertheless, we can assume it constituted a “singularity,” a unique fact or feature, something that stands out because it doesn't fit or add up and which turns out, in his experience, to be “almost invariably a clue.”


Although no writer should ever imagine the matter of metaphors to be a mere “trifle,” some, no doubt, do. Having forgotten the difficulty they experienced in mastering this basic, but most eloquent, figure of speech (or imagining that they have mastered it), some authors seldom revisit it and cease to practice the art of its creation. As a result, they are likely to write less well than they otherwise could—and should—write. Had Claude Monet, in having first mixed red and yellow, obtaining orange, concluded no other shades and hues of the color could be produced that were worth his time and effort, he might never have painted San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight. Great writers, like any other type of artist, much practice every technique to perfect it. 

While great writers' work provide many examples worthy of emulation, other sources of inspiration are also useful, especially to the apprentice or aspiring author. For writers of horror fiction, for example, posters created to publicize horror movies offer quick studies of astute uses of metaphor to advertise, or “sell,” these products. If copywriters, painters, and photographers can sell a film, partially through their use of metaphors, an author of horror stories should be able to “sell” a phrase, a sentence, a scene, or, in some cases, even an entire story through his or her adroit use of appropriate and emotionally powerful metaphors.

The metaphor, we know, is a figure of speech that compares two things (or abstractions, such as thoughts or feelings) that are not alike. A metaphor may be thought of as an equation. One variable, “A,” is said to be equal to another variable, “B”:

E = MC2
wherein, “E” is energy, “M” is mass, and “C” is the speed of light times itself

We can turn an equation around, writing, for example—
MC2 = E

Often, a metaphor makes readers aware of a quality that they might otherwise fail to notice:

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.

World = stage
Men and women = players
Exits = deaths
Entrances = births

Often, we make metaphors by stating them directly, as William Shakespeare does in the above quotation (“the world's a stage”).


However, we can create a metaphor indirectly, by speaking (or writing) of an object in relation to one (or more) of its parts. Consider this poster for the movie Teeth: 

We see a young woman lying supine in a bathtub of soapy water. Only her head appears above the water's surface. The featureless white wall above her head does not distract us with color, patterned wallpaper, paneling, or anything else. The water is also featureless, and the layer of soap lying upon its surface makes it seem one with the tub and the wall. Our gaze remains on her face; we are encouraged, in effect, to consider her, to study her. We see that she is young and beautiful. Her skin is flawless, her cheeks rosy, her lips full and red. She looks at us directly, without fear or shame.

As our gaze wanders down the poster, we see, beneath the dark water, rising bubbles and a single red rose which seems to float at about the position the young woman's genitals would be, were they visible to us. The metaphor is unstated, but suggested: her vagina = a rose. The image of the rose recalls the flower's qualities: delicacy, beauty, fragrance. We might also associate the rose with romantic love, for the flower is traditionally a symbol of erotic passion.

Beneath the flower, we encounter a single word, in the capital letters of a serif font: “Teeth.” The word's blood red color is reminiscent both of the rose above it and of the young woman's vagina, which it represents. The vagina is bloody during the moment of deflowering and throughout each menstrual cycle. This rose-vagina, or vagina-rose, becomes more and more complex, as layers of meanings unfold themselves, much in the manner of a budding rose.

This seemingly simple poster has more to offer: the smaller text, also in the capital letters of a serif font, but white, not red: “EVERY ROSE HAS ITS THORNS.” White is often a symbol of purity, or innocence, of virginity. If the young woman is a virgin, transforming her from a state of purity and innocence into a woman of knowledge—and of carnal knowledge, at that—and experience, through sexual intercourse, is apt to result in violence, injury, and, perhaps, death, not to her, but to the man who so transforms her. This young maiden is no passive and acquiescent Galatea, but a vengeful Fury. Such seems to be the warning conveyed by the poster's reference to a vagina with teeth, the legendary vagina dentata.

The front cover of a DVD made for the Spanish-speaking segment of the market bears the same imagery as the movie poster for its English-language counterpart (described above), except, instead of the title Teeth, the Spanish version is called Vagina Dentata, and, in case the front cover's message isn't clear enough, text on the Spanish edition's back cover spells out the meaning of the front cover's iconography:

[Vagina Dentata] es la historia un brusco desperta sexual como nunca se ha visto antes . . . Como nuestra protagonista pasa de liderar un grupo de castidad a experimentar sus primeras experencias sexuales de manera traumatica . . . un extrano habita en su cuerpo. Adivine que pasa cuando Dawn O'Keefe descrubre una dentadura en el lugar mas espantoso que usted puedo imaginar . . . Cuidado las chicas buenas pueden morder.

(English translation): [Teeth] is the story of a sudden sexual awakening unlike any ever seen before. . . As our protagonist goes from leading a chastity group to experiencing her first traumatic sexual experiences. . . a stranger lives in her body. Guess what happens when Dawn O'Keefe uncovers a set of teeth in the most frightening place you can imnagine. Beware: good girls can bite.


It may seem that we've gotten away from the original topic of our essay, but we haven't. The text on the back of the Spanish-language version of Teeth merely spells out the consequences, according to the movie's treatment of the topic represented by the double metaphor, “rose = vagina; thorns = teeth”: a young woman's first sexual experiences are traumatic; she responds by murdering her partners, using her vagina's teeth to effect bloody vengeance. For her victims (and for male members of the audience—yes, pun intended—the location of the young woman's second set of teeth is “the most frightening place” they can envision.) The effects presented by the movie are made possible by, if not contained within, the double metaphor.

One can create a metaphor directly, as Shakespeare does with his “all the world's a stage” trope, but a metaphor can also be created indirectly, by associating the qualities of one term (“A”) with the other term, “B,” with which it is linked by comparison. As we have seen, a well-conceived metaphor can accomplish a lot more than simply making us see something in a new light; it can become a vehicle for an entire movie's basic situation. In the case of Teeth, the screenwriters (and the poster's creators) have taken a leaf from Edgar Allan Poe, whose narrator, at the opening to his story “Berenice,” speaks of his having “derived from beauty . . [not only] a type of unloveliness,” but also a situation ripe with horror.


Note: For those who are inclinded toward psychoanalytical, or Freudian, interpretations of literature (as a rule, I am not), Teeth might also be seen as symbolic of the so-called castration complex and as rife with all sorts of unconscious significance.


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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.


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